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Feeding Rural Kids Still Challenging, Even As Maine Expands Summer Meal Program

Robbie Feinberg
Maine Public
A student eats lunch at the summer meal site at SeDoMoCha Middle School in Dover-Foxcroft.

Nearly half of all kids in Maine qualify for free and reduced-price lunch at school. During the summer months, when school is out, there haven’t been a lot of options for those families – but that’s starting to change.

In the past ten years, the number of summer meal sites in the state has more than tripled. But reaching students in rural Maine is still a major challenge.

In a small pavilion outside of Gray-New Gloucester High School, Rhondalynn LaMarca slices and scoops pizza to a long line of hungry students. This meal site, like many in Maine, emerged within the past decade. LaMarca says while it’s heavily used now, it was a struggle to get people to come in at first.

“There used to be a stigma,” she says. “‘Oh, you have to get a free lunch.’ That is completely reversed. Now it’s like, ‘Oh you’re getting lunch. I want to do that. I want to get together with my community.’“

Part of the reason for this change has been the transformation of many of these areas from simple meal sites to community gatherings.

Local parent Mercedes Mendez-Swanson says her kids come here for meals, but also run around for an hour and even help out in a local garden.

Credit Robbie Feinberg / Maine Public
Maine Public
Students eat lunch at the summer meal site at SeDoMoCha Middle School in Dover-Foxcroft.

“You never know who’ll be here,” she says. “It’s great to make friends with everybody who’s coming along at different parts of the summertime.”

In the past decade, the number of summer meals served in Maine has more than doubled, earning the state a ranking of the fifth-largest participation rate in the country.

Clarissa Hayes, with the Food Research & Action Center, says organizations like the Maine Hunger Initiative have advocated for these kinds of summer meal programs. And she points to a 2014 Maine law that requires high-poverty schools with summer programming to provide summer meals to kids.

She says that while nationwide participation in summer nutrition programs has actually decreased recently, the number of sites in Maine has tripled since 2006.

“They are really on the forefront of summer nutrition programs,” Hayes says. “And we look to them, especially in the Northeast, as an example.”

“I guess I’m a little surprised by that,” says Erin Callaway, director of Piscataquis County Healthy Food for All. “We’ve done well, but there’s still so much to do. There are way, way more kids who could benefit from this.”

Here in economically challenged Piscataquis County, 60 percent of students qualify for free and reduced-price lunch. And in just the past five or six years, nearly a dozen meal sites have opened.

Callaway says that’s a big deal for an area where transportation is a barrier.

“You can just see, driving down this road, look around you,” she says with a laugh. “We’re very rural. It’s not like we have a bus or anything that people can hop onto to get to locations.”

In the low-income Derby neighborhood of Milo, for example, the closest meal site was about two miles away.

“These kids are mostly under an age of 11 or 12 years old,” Callaway says. “It’s kind of a long way for a kid that age to bike into town on their own to get something to eat. If they have a bike.”

So this year, Callaway worked with Milo’s town manager to get summer meals to kids in this neighborhood. It hasn’t been easy, and some days, only a few kids show up.

But Milo Town Manager Damian Pickel says it has been important for this area, and it’s about more than addressing hunger.

“So the whole idea is to say that, yes, we live in Derby,” he says, “but we’re a strong community and this is going to help bring it together.”

Even with these efforts, a lot of work is still left to be done to reach more kids in Maine. Only about a quarter of eligible students in the state receive meals during the summer.

As she transports another shipment of lunches, Erin Callaway says she’s eyeing new ideas to reach those students, like a mobile meal service delivering food door-to-door.

“A kid living out on this road isn’t going to walk to any site,” she says. “So if we can do a mobile truck and deliver meals, I think we can reach a lot more kids.”

Adriane Ackroyd, summer program coordinator at the Maine Department of Education, says she’s encouraged by the use of similar models in cities such as Augusta. And she sees them as crucial to getting more meals in the hands of more kids in the future.